March 16, 2011

More Thoughts on Dividing the Trinity: A Zizioulian (!) Approach

Is it possible for the Trinity to be divided? And if it is, what would be the consequences? Yesterday, I posted briefly on whether Mark 15:34 could be interpreted as positing an essential division between the Father and the Son; today I want to consider the issue theologically through the lens of the work of John D. Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamon and significant theologian in the Greek Orthodox tradition.

Zizioulas has controversially argued that God is not a necessary being; that is, God does not exist necessarily but instead continuously affirms his free will to exist by begetting the Son and bringing forth the Spirit. Here's a quote from his book, Being as Communion, in which he fleshes this out a bit:
Thus when we say that God "is," we do not bind the personal freedom of God-the being of God in not an ontological "necessity" or a simple "reality" for God-but we ascribe the being of God to His personal freedom. In a more analytical way this means that God, as Father and not as substance, perpetually confirms through "being" His free will to exist. And it is precisely His trinitarian existence that constitutes this confirmation: the Father out of love-that is, freely-begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit. If God exists, He exists because the Father exists, that is He who out of love freely begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit. Thus God as person-as the hypostasis of the Father-makes the one divine substance to be that which it is: the one God (41).
Now plenty of theologians reject Zizioulas' claim that God is not a necessary being. In fact, all of my philosophy of religion textbooks from college and seminary argue the contrary, that God is indeed a necessary being (which is simply to say: if God exists, then he must exist; he is unable to not exist). I think this is often an Eastern/Western debate and isn't really what I'm interested in discussing here. But it is duly noted and now out of the way.

My interest is in applying Zizioulas' perspective to the comments by Marva Dawn discussed in my last post. She has claimed that when Christ cried out from the cross lamenting his forsakenness, that at that moment the Father and the Son were separated.

For Zizioulas, though, the very essence of God is bound up in the Father's eternal begetting of the Son. Indeed, the Father's ongoing confirmation of his free will to exist is bound up in his perpetual begetting of the Son. If the Father and the Son were to be ontologically divided, which is to say that the Father would cease begetting the Son, for their union is in this ongoing begetting, even if only momentarily, God would (freely) cease to exist. God the Father continually confirms his free will to exist by bringing forth the Son; if he were to cease and the two were divided, God would have freely chosen not to exist. The obvious implication of this is that everything that God continually upholds and sustains would also cease to exist, namely all creation including all of us.

So, could the Trinity be divided? From a Zizioulian perspective: yes. But then there would be no more Trinity, and God, along with everything else, would cease to exist. And we wouldn't be having this discussion. Since we're all still here, I guess we know what he would say to her proposal.

What do you think? Could the Trinity be divided? If so, what would be the consequences?


Isaac said...


This is a very nice argument. I argued this morning to a commenter on my blog that any suggested split in the Trinity is an ontological split. What I didn't get at are the implications of that split in the sense of eternal consequences. This is very helpful.

Incidentally, I also reject the idea that God is not an essential being.



Jeffrey Rudy said...

Very interesting and insightful post, Matt! The thing I kept wrestling with yesterday is that we were arguing for the unity of the Godhead, but we also must be careful in not taking that so far that we end up arguing for patri-passianism. In other words, what does the fact that the Son died (but the Father and the Spirit did not) do with this whole discussion? You, Isaac, and I were arguing at least in relation to the cry of dereliction (from my understanding), but what of the actual death?

The image that she seemed to draw was that there was a break in relationship between Father and Son and that the Spirit acted as a mediator of sorts to keep the Godhead in tact. I think that's problematic because the Father and Son were never at enmity. The Father raised Jesus from the dead after all, right?

Again, thanks for sharing this insightful post, Matt!

RespiteFromTheStorm said...

Hey guys, this is a blast. Anyway, I'll out myself as Isaac's aforementioned "commenter." I think what I was trying to say there, which probably got lost in the rambling, was that while language of a "split" is (in my estimation) to imprecise to be helpful (it connotes too strong of a separation), many theologians have productively spoken of the Cross, death and burial of Christ as a manifestation of the "distance" within the inner life of the Trinity ("distance" I take from David Bentley Hart).
This does raise an important question, which I have for Isaac in particular. What is the relationship between the immanent and economic Trinity? Isaac seems to echo Rahner (and Robert Jenson) in his assertion that the economic Trinity IS the immanent Trinity. Personally, I find this view somewhat persuasive...but only somewhat.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Justus, now that you've jumped in this whole thing is starting to feel like a reunion of our Triune Theism class!

I would want to say that there must be a sense in which the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity, because in both cases we are talking about the Trinity. The terms help us relate ontology to history, which is where I think the distinction comes in, though I should say I am perpetually wrestling with these things.

Good to hear from you,

iwentonaballoonride said...

I'm just a curious seeker, but I've been trying to answer this question: Jesus experienced genuine seperation from the Father(Mark 15:34)as a payment in place of us on the cross, did He not? Why then do theologians say God is indivisible? I though this really meant they were divided for humans - spiritual death penalty, the wages of sin.

iwentonaballoonride said...

I'm just a curious seeker, but I've been trying to answer this question: Jesus experienced genuine seperation from the Father(Mark 15:34)as a payment in place of us on the cross, did He not? Why then do theologians say God is indivisible? I though this really meant they were divided for humans - spiritual death penalty, the wages of sin.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi, thanks for your question. I'm glad you found your way to my blog. You raise a good question, and I'll do my best to answer it.

In Mark 15, Jesus is expressing his experience of being forsaken unto the penalty of the cross. I think it is important to consider that Jesus may not be speaking of an absolute separation between himself and the Father. Instead, he seems to be describing the temporal experience of being forsaken unto the cross with all of its agony and pain. This doesn't necessarily mean the the Father ceased begetting the Son or that they were essentially divided.

I think we sometimes unhelpful ideas are sometimes imposed on the text and then get passed around a lot. And the idea that this passage in Mark is about the splitting up of the Trinity is probably one of those unhelpful ideas. Mark 15:34 is not a make or break it passage on the Trinity. It's about Jesus making a full and sufficient sacrifice on our behalf. And that is something for which we can be grateful.

I'm not sure how satisfying this answer will be. Feel free to press back and ask more questions.

Thanks for reading and posting,

iwentonaballoonride said...

Oh - thanks! Never thought of that before.